Edited by Lex McMillan, Sarah Penwarden and Siobhan HuntEugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2017. XI + 223PP.                                                 ISBN: 978-1-49829173-6. $35.00

Book Review: Stories of Therapy, Stories of Faith

Edited by Lex McMillan, Sarah Penwarden and Siobhan Hunt

Stories of Therapy, Stories of Faith edited by Lex McMillan, Sarah Penwarden and Siobhan Hunt focuses on the partnership between narrative therapy practise and Christian faith in Aotearoa/ New Zealand. In the introduction the reader is introduced to the threefold vision for the collection as a forum for professional writing, as a resource to support others engaged in integrative practice and to “support the outworking of commitment to participating in God’s shared life of love with a restoration telos” (xiv). The work is in three sections - A Larger Story; Stories of Counselling Practice and Stories of Counselor Education. The editors invite readers to “savor the words and life stories that these represent”, (xvi) and to reflect on resonances in their own lives.

The three chapters in Part 1, “A Larger Story–our theoretical standing place” offer a Christian theological framework for narrative practice. This is a bold step away from narrative therapy’s location in post-structural theory and relativism and welcome to Christian practitioners who have found narrative practice life-giving. Lex McMillan, David Crawley and Siobhan Hunt provide clear insights into the possibilities this alternative location offers those providing and seeking support, possibilities enriched by God’s life and love active in their encounters.

Lex McMillan succinctly situates the practice in God through the analogy of the social trinity. He recognises the limits of framing anthropology from the nature of God, however he presents rich insights from social trinitarian thinking. McMillan highlights the centrality of persons-in-relationship, the divine exists in reciprocal loving relationship; the value of embodiment, Jesus was incarnate; and the formative possibilities of social interaction, as reflecting divine community. He suggests that the life of Jesus is the “habitus” in which people explore their own lives; and frames counselling “as a restorative social project that is ethically shaped by values such as hospitality towards others, offering forgiveness and working for justice” (5).

David Crawley, drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin, outlines differences between monologic and dialogic practice. This is valuable for ministers as well as professional counsellors because ministers carry religious authority. Monologic practice privileges the interpretation of the listener/counsellor. Crawley clearly explains positioning in discourse (30), that professional identity, gender, age and more localised factors privilege some voices over others. A person with more power may perceive a conversation as mutual, however, when power is exposed the imbalance of the engagement appears. Crawley outlines an ethical scaffold for narrative practice in which a listener develops sensitivity to power difference and takes action to expose and address these across a conversation. Naming and attending to this is “reflexive” practice which differs from reflective practice that has the potential to be limited to introspection. A principle awareness is that a listener engaging in dialogic practice expects that they, as well as the speaker, will be changed in the encounter. Crawley connects reflexive practice with the Christian concept of transformation embodying the Christian qualities of hospitality, welcome, and mutuality that construct communities of justice and hope.

Siobhan Hunt’s chapter concludes the theoretical section grounding it in ethical practice. Hunt describes “creating space for faith” (39) and reflects on the ways her daily life as a counsellor form her in Christian faith. Hunt continues threads of relationality and reflexive practice; adding a series of reflections that include “bringing Christ into the room” (51) as the heart of empathy, her own participation in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity and being the presence of Christ in the world.

Stories of Counselling Practice, Part 2, fulfils the editors’ vision of space for a forum for professional writing and support for integrative practice. The section begins with a chapter that continues reflecting on Trinitarian theology as it forms the practitioner in relationship with the client. Jayme Koerselman outlines how healing is offered in practice in relationships formed in Trinitarian life and a Christian worldview. The following six chapters offer a reader rich accounts of practice in which Christian practitioners ground theory and theological concepts in lived practice. They are reflexive and honest as they dialogue with their practice, professional identity and formation in Christian faith. The six authors meet a wide range of people and circumstances including families (Ruth McConnell, Barbara Bulkeley); people who have experienced trauma (Lisa Spriggens); boys in trouble at school (Donald McMenamin); an Anti-Bullying Team in the classroom (Mike Williams and Lex McMillan); and children who have experienced trauma in West Africa (Deborah Gill).

Many parts of these chapters are moving, as hope emerges through practitioner and people in relationship. Readers will find the pieces that resonate for them personally and professionally. Ruth McConnell in “Designed for and by Love: Working with Families from an Attachment and Interpersonal Neurobiology Framework” may be of interest to counsellors who are reflecting theologically while working within these theoretical frameworks. Barbara Bulkeley, describes family therapy using biblical concepts of hesed and perichoresis. Donald McMenamin speaks of “I am becoming” stories that richly form alternative life narratives with boys in school. Lisa Spriggens explores the God who suffers with and positions herself as the embodiment of God’s love when meeting with survivors of sexual trauma. The contributors are unafraid to name “love” as their motivation in meeting with people.

Stories of Counselor Education, Part 3, focuses on how these ideas form counsellor education. Watiri Maina and Sarah Penwarden position education in a relational and collaborative model informed by the theological ideas that weave through the book. They demonstrate dialogic principles of respecting difference, humility, hospitality and sharing power. Sarah Penwarden reflects realistically on the challenges of assessment and holds this in tension with a commitment to humility as shown by Jesus and described by Paul in Philippians 2:5–11, Jesus sets power aside and opens space for loving service. In the final chapter, Hannah Forde, a recent graduate offers a personal reflection on her identity and work as a counsellor with Psalm 23 as a paradigm. She speaks of accompanying, inviting, expressing hospitality in alliance with God and people to find ways of living and being in pathways of peace. Here the editors demonstrate humility with an open stance to co-constructing identity that is not dependent on academic status or years of practice.

I am a Christian parish minister, former educator in pastoral studies and narrative practice, and counsellor in a narrative framework. I found Stories of Therapy, Stories of Faith an encouraging read. It is ambitious in its scope, however, as the chapters unfold the ideas and theory embedded in human relationships and lives that are changed. The work offers practitioners and readers space to celebrate the grace and love of God who calls us to share in God’s ministry whether as professional counsellors, ministers or Christian friends.

Sue Burns is an Anglican priest in parish ministry and has worked in theological education and university chaplaincy.